FORT LAUDERDALE — The late civil rights activist Eula Gandy Johnson was well respected; not only as an entrepreneur, but also for her strength and commitment to the African-American community as the first woman president of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP.
Now, the historic house where she lived and from which she operated a gas station will be transformed into a museum recognizing her contributions.
Last week, city commissioners, acting as the Community Re-development Agency, approved a measure that will allow the Fort Lauderdale NAACP to move its headquarters into the home, and – with the CRA’s help – turn it into a museum and welcome station.
Johnson owned a small grocery store and two gas stations in the area known during segregation as the Negro District. One of the gas stations, at 1100 Sistrunk Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale, shared the 8,400-square-foot parcel of land where her house rested.
City Commissioner Carlton Moore said Johnson stood for something, and that it is the desire of the NAACP to see that her type of leadership is not thrust aside.
“We see this as a true opportunity to archive her legacy of leadership,’’ Moore said. “There are no reasons for the kids to not know who the person was
that opened doors for the opportunities they have today.”
Known by many as the Rosa Parks of Broward County, Johnson made history on July 4, 1961 when she, along with Dr. Von Mizell and a group of black students from Dillard High
School, became the first blacks to wade into the segregated waters of Fort Lauderdale beach.
At the time, the city of Fort Lauderdale sued Johnson for being a public nuisance; Johnson won the case. A federal court ruled in her favor and against the city’s segregation policies.
Johnson fought against injustices as the first female president of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP from 1959 to 1967.
Five years after Johnson’s death in 2001, her grandson, Gregory Johnson, sold her home to an absentee owner who allowed it to deteriorate.
The CRA purchased the now-vacant and boarded up property in December 2007 for $165,000, Moore said.
On May 20, members of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP, the Fort Lauderdale Midtown Business Association and the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society teamed up in a meeting with the CRA. The groups made a presentation, requesting that Johnson’s home not be demolished as part of the redevelopment process, but be rehabilitated and preserved.
“I can’t think of a time when the historical society in Fort Lauderdale has joined with people of African descent in stating that a site should not be torn down,” Moore said. “That’s evidence that this project is valuable to the community.”
The Fort Lauderdale NAACP will relocate its current office from the Mizell Center at 1409 Sistrunk Blvd. to the Johnson house once the CRA has refurbished it.
“The CRA has a boundary in which they are dedicated to redeveloping the area,” he said. “This particular property was one that they acquired in an attempt to destroy the home, as well as adjacent properties. That would allow them to place the properties out for bid.”
But, he said, “Once the community became aware that the CRA had purchased Johnson’s home, they felt it would be best used by making it a welcome station and museum site, as well as for housing of the [Fort Lauderdale] NAACP.”
Moore, an NAACP board member and former president, said his association with the organization did not influence the decision.
“The initiative was by the NAACP, not me,” he said. “[The community], throughout several District 3 meetings, made requests to have the CRA not demolish the property. They’d rather it remain the home of Eula Johnson.”
Moore also said that once the site is rehabilitated, it will not cost the city or the CRA any more money.
“The property will continue to be owned by the CRA; the NAACP is not asking for ownership,’’ Moore said. “They are not asking for anything special. They are simply taking advantage of a property that has historic value to the community, and a person, who made it her life example that she would not allow individuals to state that she was less than any other human being.”
Gregory Johnson, who now lives in Tallahassee, said he lived in the house with his grandmother for 17 years, and found the property difficult to sell.
“I simply could not hold onto it any longer, although my dream was to preserve it. I rented it out for a while, but that proved too costly,” he said.
He said it is a great honor that the property will be used to facilitate the NAACP, an organization for which his grandmother lived.
“The movement was her passion,” he said. “Carlton [Moore] and the community have done nothing but try and help me keep the house. Having it as a home for the [Fort Lauderdale] NAACP and a museum will truly represent her legacy.”
Not everyone agrees.
NAACP lifetime member Al Calloway said Johnson was still living in the house when he came to Fort Lauderdale in 1980, and that the two had “several conversations about things happening in Fort Lauderdale.”
He described Johnson as having been “aggressive” and “a woman unafraid to get things done. If she were a man, they definitely would have lynched her.”
Of the current NAACP, Calloway said, “But things, it seems, have changed with the organization. It doesn’t seem busy, somehow. The level of expertise is different; the programs don’t seem workable. I’ve heard complaints of issues not being addressed.”
Calloway added that although the Fort Lauderdale NAACP’s pending move into the Johnson house will give it greater visibility, he is not sure that it will bring back the force that the organization needs.
“The numbers, the people, the supporting organizations and associations; they just don’t seem to be there like in my day,” he said. “You can’t buy life back into the organization with that house.”
Current Fort Lauderdale NAACP President Marsha Ellison, only the second woman since Johnson to lead the organization, did not return phone calls to the South Florida Times.
But Mathes Guice, a lifetime Fort Lauderdale NAACP member and former vice president, disagreed with Calloway.
“I spent most of my adult life in the NAACP [Fort Lauderdale],” he said. “Just because the city is giving them the house does not mean that their [NAACP] actions will, in any way, be compromised. Yes, the leadership is different, and perhaps they could be more effective in areas. But we, in our day, had a different way of communicating things, and were active overall on a different level.”
Guice also stated that everyone “can do more,” and that civil rights work “just isn’t easy. Results are based on leadership and how it works with various systems. In my time, we always went against the grain. Times were tougher; there were many issues in our community.”
Guice added that the Johnson home would serve as a better location, “especially because this is what Eula loved. She was actively engaged in the movement, even if it wasn’t really popular to do so. To see her home used as such, and if there are no strings attached that will hinder progress, is a great memorial to her. It’s a blessing.”
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. The historic house where Eula Gandy Johnson lived and operated a gas station is now boarded up and vacant at the corner of Sistrunk Boulevard and Northwest 11th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale.